On May 19, 1953 - a day that haunts Isaac Nelson - a neighbor called him out of his Cedar City home to watch a huge, pinkish fallout cloud from an atomic bomb test now called "Dirty Harry."
His wife, Oleta, walked out too, in a short-sleeved dress and bobby socks. Neighbors chatted and marveled as the cloud passed. They didn't worry about safety. After all, the government said the fallout was harmless.That night, Oleta suffered nausea and diarrhea. A headache struck that would pound for six months. Her doctor said she acted as if she had a bad case of sunburn - even though her olive skin rarely burned and she hadn't been in the sun much that day.
A few weeks later, Oleta "let out the most ungodly scream I've ever heard," Isaac says. "Half of her hair slipped off her scalp, just like off the front of a cue ball. . . . It never grew back. When she went out, she always had on a hat or bandanna."
Oleta died of brain cancer 12 years later after severe suffering. Isaac says, with anger sparking cursing in his otherwise clean speech as a Mormon high priest, that "I will go to my grave believing those damned atomic tests (in Nevada) caused it."
But the U.S. government still doesn't believe it, not officially.
Isaac Nelson is among increasing thousands nationwide who say growing scientific evidence of the effects of atomic fallout should qualify them for the $50,000 to $100,000 in compensation the government approved in 1990 for some atomic program cancer victims. But the compensation program and its letter-of-the-law enforcement still excludes them from collecting.
In a long list of exceptions, the government says they have the wrong types of cancer or other diseases, lived in the wrong place (or maybe the right place at the wrong time), don't have ample proof of their sickness or residence, or were too old (or too young) when they developed illnesses.
Even those who receive money find it may cause jealousy among those who didn't. The money doesn't ease pain for long and, for some, causes the uneasy feeling that they have received "blood money" or are somehow cheating the government.
The wrong cancer
In Isaac Nelson's case, the brain cancer that killed his wife was not among cancer types included in the final compensation law because some congressmen felt there was too little evidence that radiation could cause it. Subsequent studies have indicated a stronger relationship.
Statistics show Nelson is not alone with such problems.
More than half of the 6,008 compensation applications acted upon by the end of 1997 were denied by the U.S. Department of Justice. Of the total, 3,133, or 52.1 percent, did not meet compensation guidelines, the department ruled.
"That means the government has paid money to only half of those relative few who had the strongest cases," says Cedar City resident Janet Gordon, co-chairwoman of the National Committee for Radiation Victims.
"Thousands of others didn't even bother to apply because they knew they would be denied because of some problem. But they still believe the government is at fault." She said the 10,000 to 15,000 compensation information packets the Justice Department says have been requested is a better measure of victims' real numbers.
The problem spreads
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sponsored the compensation law with former Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, acknowledges the problems. While he says he would like to fix them, that is difficult because not enough money is easily available to pay all who now might qualify, based on additional study.
For example, a massive National Cancer Institute study released last year after 14 years of research said radioactive iodine-131 fallout from the atomic tests landed in every county in America.
Many areas from northern Utah to Idaho, Wyoming and even Missouri, Iowa and New York had concentrations as high or higher than the few counties in southern Utah, northern Arizona and Nevada where victims can now qualify for compensation.
A look at the lives of some Utahns who lived downwind from the tests shows many problems with the compensation law as it now exists, let alone the question of whether it should now expand to other states.
These Utahns say being denied payments makes them victims a second time. They say the government knew atomic testing was hazardous but didn't warn them and that it is still avoiding responsibility for the damage.
Everything was `right'
An example that the compensation program has worked as intended for some people is Myrna Cox of Glendale, Kane County.
"I had my answer within six weeks of when I applied and had my money within another four weeks. It worked well in my case," said the young-looking mother of 10 grown children, who remembers watching atomic blasts during Sunday drives as a child.
She was among downwind cancer victims who qualify for $50,000. Cancer victims who worked at the Nevada Test Site may receive $75,000. Uranium miners, whom the government knew could die from cancers anticipated from unventilated conditions that it chose not to fix, may qualify for $100,000.
Cox was compensated for carcinoid tumors in her small intestine. They likely would have killed her, she says, except that a doctor accidentally discovered them during surgery to stanch bleeding after a tubal pregnancy.
Her doctor kept notes to prove her illness, and she had plenty of tax, church, utility, school and other information to prove her residency in the downwind area during the required times.
Gerard Fischer, assistant director of the Justice Department agency that oversees the compensation program, says Cox received her money quicker than most.
"The average time for a decision is just under a year," he said, adding that his staff of eight is kept busy with a steady flow of applications. He said appropriations from Congress have kept just ahead of the demand for money. Some $212.7 million has been paid so far. The program is authorized to continue through 2012.
Cox said she gave much of her money to charity and much of it to help her children. She said her motivation in applying for compensation wasn't really to get the cash. Instead, "It was getting the government to live up to the responsibility to let people know what happened."
`Right' place, can't prove it
Doug Fox's mother died of breast cancer and his brother died, as a child, of leukemia. Both types of cancer qualify for compensation as long as victims lived in the right place at the right time. Fox says they did.
But Fox, who remembers atomic mushroom clouds and seeing dead sheep and other animals after atomic tests, says he has been unable to prove his family's residency.
The trouble is, the family moved to Central, Washington County, to live with relatives to save money.
"Because they lived with relatives, my parents didn't pay utility bills or property taxes," receipts from which would have proven their residency, he said.
So he said he tried to find membership records from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "but they (his parents) weren't really active until later," and their records apparently were not transferred then from their permanent home in Las Vegas (which is outside the compensation area).
Fox's father also worked for the railroad and was traveling at the time between Provo and Las Vegas, and work records also did not help prove residency. They only showed his address in Las Vegas, where his family had rented out their home to help finances.
Fox did find a few residents of Central willing to testify that his family indeed lived there at the time of the tests, but the Justice Department will not accept such affidavits as proof.
Fischer said such problems in proving residency are rare, but they happen.
"We don't demand a whole lot of evidence on residency, just any type of evidence - besides affidavits - that shows they were in the required place at the right time. We've used canceled mail. We've used telephone book entries, tax records, utility bills, things like that," he said.
Gordon, however, said she hears constant complaints from people about difficulty in proving residency. American Indians, many of whom were uranium miners, for instance, often have no written residency or marriage records from the time period designated for survivors to collect.
She said others find proof they lived at roughly the right time in the right place, such as church records showing what year they lived in the designated area, but lack proof that they were in town during required, specific months of some tests. Some church records in some small towns have been lost or destroyed, making proof of residency difficult.
`Right' cancer, can't prove it
Catharine Adams said her husband, Gary, had non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1971 and survived it after surgery and treatments. One of her doctors swears the same. But she can't prove it well enough to collect compensation.
She says the problem comes because of a change in medical terminology through the years, poor record-keeping by some of their doctors, lost records by others and inflexible interpretation of rules by government bureaucrats.
Catharine Adams, who also remembers watching fallout clouds pass by in Cedar City "and everybody thinking, gosh, we're lucky we can see something like this," says problems started when her husband developed a lump in his neck and then lumps under his arms.
She said doctors at the time diagnosed it initially as fibrosarcoma, which now specifies a cancer of connective tissues. But she said that after surgery and follow-up treatments, medical attendants said it was a cancer of the lymph system.
But she said a doctor who handled follow-up visits to her husband never kept many notes. Another doctor cannot find records of liver scans and other tests from the time period that could prove her assertions. And the written documentation she does have talks about the wrong kind of cancer to qualify for compensation.
So the family doctor wrote a letter saying Gary Adams had what he would now diagnose as non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Catharine Adams even bought a medical diagnosis book written in 1971 to show it does not even list non-Hodgkins. She says the change in terminology is why her doctors wrote the wrong term for the cancer at the time.
Her claim was rejected. The Justice Department wrote, "Because Dr. Brown's letter was written more than 23 years after the events described in your medical records, his letter is clearly not a contemporaneous document." Such records are needed for compensation.
"It's not fair," a tearful Catharine Adams says. She said the family spent much of its modest income to pay her husband's medical bills. In recent years, they have spent hundreds more on lawyers and research, seeking compensation. She says her elderly husband still works at a gasoline station to help make ends meet.
Fischer said that to guard against improper claims, it seeks contemporaneous records that prove a cancer of the type for which compensation is allowed. At least the service requires other solid evidence, such as an autopsy report or other description of conditions that doctors now say would generate a diagnosis of that cancer.
Too old when exposed
Velma Gordon was exposed to fallout from atomic tests beginning when she had just turned 40 years old and was living in Orderville, Kane County. She developed breast cancer at age 89.
"Had she been just a few months younger, she would have qualified" for compensation," said her daughter, Janet Gordon, a member of the Committee for Radiation Victims.
The compensation law had a cutoff age of 40 because women older than that face multiple risk factors that may cause cancer, studies show. But the chance that younger women developed such cancers from fallout was greater.
"Nobody on either side of the family had breast cancer before," Janet says. But she said she and her sisters have had several biopsies of possible pre-cancerous conditions since.
Velma Gordon had a mastectomy because it was considered the safest way to treat breast cancer in someone her age. Also because of her advanced age, doctors opted against follow-up radiation treatments to ensure the cancer was checked. Janet says her mother seems to be doing fine.
But she also says the family blames the atomic tests for cancer that killed her father and a brother. The government provided compensation only in her brother's case, however.
Gordon says her father had prostate cancer when he died and suffered for years from severe shingles, which she also suspects was related to the tests.
Her brother was heavily exposed by the same "Dirty Harry" shot that Isaac Nelson suspects led to his wife's brain cancer. He was riding a horse when the cloud created what he described as a "ground fog" that tasted metallic. His horse died a few days later.
"He died of pancreatic cancer, which is unusual for someone that young," Janet said. "It usually affects alcoholics or someone who drinks a lot. We had to prove he wasn't a drinker" which they did by showing he had a recommend to enter LDS temples. Such recommends are not given to people who drink alcohol.
Too young to qualify
Bethany Petersen of St. George died of leukemia when she was 6. She traveled from her home in St. George to Salt Lake City for treatment every alternate week for the last two years of her life.
Her mother, Claudia, blames the leukemia on the atomic testing. But Bethany was never directly exposed to fallout. Her parents were exposed long before she was born, "but the law doesn't allow any compensation for second-generation victims," Claudia says.
Claudia says she likely was exposed to plenty of radiation as a child. She can't help wondering if her exposure caused genetic damage to her child, contributing to her leukemia. Studies of the offspring of Japanese atomic blast victims suggests it is possible, she said.
She remembers seeing as a child an atomic fireball that looked like a "flying saucer in the sky," and how at the time it made her and neighbors "feel patriotic and that we were taking part in history. But they were killing us."
Sometime during the years of tests, she remembers government agents going to her elementary school and checking students' thyroids, where radioactive iodine-131 can concentrate, with geiger counters. She said residents were not told what the results were.
Scientists have since explained that most iodine-131 affecting humans came from milk. Cows would eat contaminated foliage and pass it on in tainted milk. Contamination was worse in unpasteurized, raw cow's milk and worse yet from goat's milk.
"Most people where I lived drank raw milk from a neighbor's cow and ate vegetables they grew themselves," said Claudia Petersen. Our parents thought we were living a healthy lifestyle, but everything we ate was contaminated," she said.
`Right' cancer, wrong place
St. George lawyer Clayton Huntsman, brother of industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr., has thyroid cancer, which Congress agrees can be caused by fallout. And he was in some of the places the government says were hardest hit by radioactive fallout.
He still doesn't qualify for compensation.
One problem is that his childhood home during most of the tests was southern Idaho, which studies released last year show received more radioactive iodine-131 fallout than southern Utah. But when it passed the 1990 compensation law, Congress hadn't seen the results of that study.
On top of that, Huntsman said he was visiting his grandmother's home in Fillmore in May 1953 during that infamous "Dirty Harry" blast. The blast was officially named Shot Harry, an alphabetical-sequence name, as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole.
"I remember my uncles Harold and Scott were playing with geiger counters there," he said. "They pointed them at the tree and the house, and nothing happened. But when they put it against the snow, it went off the scale. (The snow) was radioactive."
Huntsman said he and his cousins "rolled in the snow and had a great time anyway." Weren't they concerned? "No, the government said it was safe."
Huntsman said if he himself had been a resident of Fillmore, he would have qualified for compensation. But he was just a visitor in the wrong place at the wrong time. Visitors don't qualify.
A third incident came when Huntsman's family was driving to Utah from another, later, home in northern California. He remembers that they stayed overnight in the Lake Tahoe area, and his father awakened his family early to watch the sky light up from an atomic test.
"We drove across U.S. 50 to Millard that day, probably following in the fallout all day," he said. But again because he was not a formal resident of qualifyed downwind areas, he doesn't qualify.
"There were probably a lot of people just driving through areas that got zapped," he said. Huntsman adds that numerous members of his extended family have suffered all sorts of cancer since. That's one reason his brother Jon became a founder of a cancer research institute at the University of Utah.
Right place, wrong illness
Edmund Hepworth of Orderville, Kane County, used to watch fallout clouds go by from atop the hill in back of his house. Now, he has a growth that almost doubles the size of his neck.
"It's not cancer. I've had seven biopsies. The doctors think it has something to do with my thyroid (which is especially sensitive to iodine-131)," he says.
Because it isn't cancer, it doesn't qualify for compensation. Only very specific forms of cancer qualify.
Hepworth, 78, said he's had the growth for years, and "I could never wear ties because I can't stand them on my neck. It used to be a lot larger, but it shrunk after my stroke" a few months ago.
He said he believes radiation from the tests caused the growth, but adds it may also have come from his passing through Hiroshima, Japan, as a soldier after the city was bombed at the end of World War II.
Someone else who also blames a non-cancerous disease on the testing is Darlene Phillips of Bountiful. She has "agammaglob-u-lin-e-mia," a total absence of gamma globulin in the blood, which essentially turned off her body's immune system.
She said she was included in a group of 45 people with the rare disease studied by the National Institutes of Health. It hoped to find a way to turn their immune systems back on. Serums from their systems could help transplant recipients who sometimes suffer similar problems, it was thought.
Phillips said most of the people in the immune disease study came from fallout areas in southern Utah. One doctor told her off the record he felt the disease was related to radiation exposure. Phillips herself lived in the area only one summer as a worker at Bryce Canyon - but remembers watching radiation clouds during early morning hikes.
In addition, a National Institutes of Health ophthalmologist, who was a native of Japan, examined her 12 years ago because of eye problems she had.
"He asked, `When were you in Japan? You had to have been in Japan.' But I said I never was. He said, `Well, you have radiation cataracts on your eyes.' " He told her the cataracts were similar to those he had seen in people living near Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Phillips said, "The nurses said he shouldn't have told me that."
Phillips is the only one of the 45 people in the NIH study who is still alive. She spends $1,000 a month for special medicine that has worked for her. But she doesn't qualify for atomic downwinder compensation - yet.
"The doctors tell me that I will likely someday develop lymphoma and leukemia, which fall on the list of covered cancers," she said. "They've been pretty accurate so far about other diseases they said I would probably develop."
Gordon says many groups also blame higher incidence of ailments ranging from multiple sclerosis to birth defects, chronic fatigue syndrome and shingles on fallout radiation. But few studies have been performed to support their theories.
Too many wrongs
Alfred H. Rosenham died last year after he hit the tragic trifecta of having a wrong type of cancer, living in the wrong place and developing a non-cancer illness. Despite the triple whammy, he blamed his problems on fallout.
He said he was prospecting with friends on a mountain near Preston, Idaho, on Aug. 31, 1957, when a radiation cloud hit the area as they ate the lunch that he had spread out on a rock. He said the food left a "horrible metallic taste in my mouth."
The group's geiger counters also went off the scale. "Normally they click. But they were roaring."
He added that geiger counters showed heavy radiation on the road back toward Salt Lake City until they came to Willard, Box Elder County. "We drove out of it, just like driving out of rainstorm."
He soon developed a cancer on his tongue. A doctor cut away part of it. But it returned, and more of his tongue was cut away.
Finally doctors determined that one of his silver tooth fillings had become radioactive. They removed the tooth, but about a quarter of his tongue was also removed from recurring cancer. He also had three operations on his nose for cancer.
He said something even worse happened. Within days of exposure, "I had absolutely no feeling in my crotch area. It crept down to my feet." Eventually he couldn't walk.
But cancer of the tongue and nose aren't compensated. Living in Salt Lake City and visiting Idaho also doesn't meet residency requirements. And nerve problems and the lack of sensation he mentioned also are not compensated.
Not long before he died, he told the Deseret News all his illnesses, plus not qualifying for compensation, "has made my life one living hell for the last 40 years."
Radiation compensation is only for humans. But Kern Bullock's family lost hundreds of sheep from atomic tests and never received a penny, despite pushing court cases seeking repayment.
Bullock, of Cedar City, said that in 1953 his family and some neighbors lost 5,000 sheep in a combined herd that was grazing downwind from the tests. Of that number, 1,100 belonged to his family.
"Not only did we lose a lot of grown sheep, but we lost all the lambs that were born that year," he said. "Many were born deformed, with such things as no fleece on. It was awful."
He adds, "We would go in one day and feed the herd, and they would be eating hearty as can be. The next day we would find 50 to 100 dead and haul them out. We were some of the first to figure what was wrong. Cancer victims figured it out later" primarily because it took longer for the people to die than the sheep.
The Bullocks and neighboring sheepmen were the first to sue the government alleging damage from the atomic tests.
They lost the initial 1956 court case. But a 1982 case would rule the government withheld key evidence and essentially lied in the first case. An appeals court reversed that decision and no compensation ever came.
Bullock said the sheep losses were devastating for his family.
"We had to go to the Farmers Home Loan (Administration) and take out loans just to stay in the business. We're out of it now," he said. "My father was in better shape than most. he was one of the wealthy sheep men in Cedar . . . and he sold a lot of farm ground just to stay in business."
He adds, "I have no doubt that the government is responsible. But we never got any money." And the government still denies any responsibility.
Next: Winning compensation doesn't guarantee happiness.
Compensation for fallout
How much different types of applicants have received in compensation for cancer likely caused by atomic-bomb testing:
Type of Claim Denied Success Rate Paid
Childhood leukemia 18 55% $ 1,100,000
Other downwinder 1,113 55% $ 67,770,000
Test site workers 655 20% $ 11,310,845
Uranium miners 1,347 49.7% $132,491,500
Total 3,133 47.9% $212,672,345
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, claims settled as of Dec. 3, 1997.